Steven Gerrard’s most obvious and urgent task in his new job is to make sense of Aston Villa. The club have big ambitions and trumpeted a vague plan for this season – to use the money from the sale of one great individual, Jack Grealish, to improve the team as a whole. But Dean Smith was jilted, albeit quite ceremoniously, because after 11 league matches there was still a vagueness, even a confusion, to what Villa were doing. How exactly were they trying to win matches? What was their proposition? It was not easy to tell towards the end.
It would have been reasonable to give Smith more time to sort things out – he had solved similar problems in the past, still had the support of the players and his chances of bringing order would have been boosted once unforeseeable snags related to injuries and Covid-19 abated – but apparently the people above him concluded that a new manager was more likely to get Villa on track. Gerrard has been given a terrific opportunity to prove he can succeed in the Premier League.
He inherits a squad good enough to climb much higher than their current perch, 16th, though probably not strong enough to reach Europe. Villa’s owners have the money to bankroll more big signings but the club have also invested heavily in their youth teams in recent years – and won the FA Youth Cup last season – and expect to see players graduate from the academy to the first team. Smith gave debuts to players such as Carney Chukwuemeka and Cameron Archer, and made the 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey a regular in midfield. Gerrard will be expected to continue integrating young players, and it was noticeable that Villa’s CEO, Christian Purslow, mentioned the new manager’s stint in charge of Liverpool Under-18s when announcing his appointment.
But the first thing Gerrard must do is repair Villa’s defence. That was a job Smith accomplished in his first season after promotion, and the signing of Emi Martínez brought even more solidity last season. But those gains have somehow got lost this season, with only Newcastle and Norwich conceding more goals. Curiously, Villa even became more vulnerable at set pieces despite hiring a specialist coach in the summer. Gerrard will be bringing a new one.
Individual players have gone backwards this season and Gerrard needs to reverse that. Martínez, perhaps Villa’s highest-calibre player, has been below par in a season where he has had to do an unprecedented amount of international travel; Matt Targett was outstanding last season but has regressed alarmingly; and Tyrone Mings’s form deteriorated to the extent that Smith dropped him against West Ham two weeks ago. Mings has made mistakes but his personality and leadership skills, as well as the lack of a better alternative, mean he remains precious to Villa even when not at his best. Gerrard should be able to build a defence around him and Ezri Konsa.
Gerrard must also figure out how to protect that defence. Villa have not been consistently strong in central midfield. Douglas Luiz, a fine ball winner and passer when on form, has shown signs of wear after a summer in which he had no respite owing to engagements with Brazil. Marvelous Nakamba is dynamic but not much of a passer. John McGinn can be brilliant but has not performed to his best regularly. Ramsey is an emerging talent, Ashley Young a dwindling one who is certainly useful but cannot be expected to control central midfield in the Premier League very often.
The problem for Villa was that vulnerability in one sector seemed to infect the rest of the team. The softness of Villa’s central midfield contributed to the nervousness of their defence; and the brittleness of the defence seemed to make Villa’s midfield and forwards wary about pressuring opponents too high. Their pressing became haphazard and they were not solid when they sat deep. Villa looked to be caught between two stools, with the result often a mess.
Gerrard must ensure the whole team are committed to what they are doing. That probably starts with restoring confidence, which drained away with damning speed, with chronic anxiety apparently setting in after Villa let a 2-0 lead turn into a 3-2 defeat in the last 10 minutes against Wolves last month.
The loss of confidence probably has a lot to do with the loss of Grealish. With him, Villa’s defenders, in particular, had a player to whom they could give the ball and be reassured that he would do something productive, or at least take it up the right end. Without him, Villa have often looked uncertain how to play their way forward. In mitigation, they have often been deprived of creative influences such as Bertrand Traoré but the players available have not risen to the task consistently enough.
Emi Buendía, the record signing in the summer, has too often been peripheral on the right wing, and Leon Bailey contributed little on his only two starts after some exciting appearances off the bench. Gerrard needs to find a way of getting much more out of those two going forward, and also decide whether, and when, they can fit into the team with both Danny Ings and the club’s most dynamic player, if not the most prolific finisher, Ollie Watkins.
The strange thing about Villa this season is that a lot has gone wrong but it will probably not take a lot to set them right. Smith might have done it. Gerrard should.